NSA headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland (US Government photo in the public domain)

(update 1 & 2 below)

National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake on “Democracy Now!” this morning said, “You’ve got to remember, none of this is probable cause. This is simply the ability to collect. And as I was told shortly after 9/11, ‘You don’t understand, Mr. Drake. We just want the data.’ And so, the secret surveillance regime really has a hoarding complex, and they can’t get enough of it.”

A top secret NSA slide show on a classified surveillance program, PRISM, reveals some details to the extent to which the NSA has developed this “hoarding complex.”

According to the slide show obtained by The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, which is dated April 2013, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple all have entered into some type of agreement with the NSA to collect, in real-time, email, chat (video, voice), photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, notifications of target activity (such as logins, etc), online social networking details and an ominous-sounding category, “special requests.”

The source of the material, according to the Washington Post, is a “career intelligence officer” with “firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities. It drove him to “provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy.” He told the Post, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

An introductory slide indicates the program is called PRISM “after the prisms used to split light, which is used to carry information on fiber-optic cables.” It is part of Special Source Operations, which is “the NSA term for alliances with trusted US companies.”

PRISM is also the “number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports.” Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras for The Washington Post report:

An internal presentation on the Silicon Valley operation, intended for senior analysts in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, described the new tool as the most prolific contributor to the President’s Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 articles last year. According to the briefing slides, obtained by The Washington Post, “NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM” as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.

That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications. It is all the more striking because the NSA, whose lawful mission is foreign intelligence, is reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil. [emphasis added]

All the companies participating in the program have denied knowledge of it. One senior tech executive claimed, “If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge.”

The program has been collecting communications from American-held accounts since 2007. Microsoft was the first to join. Apple was recently added in October 2012. Dropbox is apparently expected to become a participant soon.

PRISM is apparently working alongside yet another program called BLARNEY, which gathers up “metadata,” like “address packets, device signatures and the like — as it streams past choke points along the backbone of the Internet. BLARNEY’s top-secret program summary, set down alongside a cartoon insignia of a shamrock and a leprechaun hat, describes it as ‘an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.’”

Gellman and Poitras further report that the system has “a web portal at Fort Meade” where analysts key in “selectors”—search terms which are supposed to help analysts become confident of the “foreignness” of the target. Surveillance is not supposed to target citizens. However, the Post obtained training materials that show that if US content is “accidentally collected” it is “nothing to worry about.”

Another one of the slides obtained indicates there has been “continued exponential growth in tasking to Facebook and Skype.” The Post adds, “With a few clicks and an affirmation that the subject is believed to be engaged in terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation, an analyst obtains full access to Facebook’s ‘extensive search and surveillance capabilities against the variety of online social networking services.’”

Greenwald points out the FISA Amendments Act redefined “electronic surveillance” so it excluded individuals who were “reasonably believed” to be outside of the United States, which reduced “the bar to initiating surveillance.” It made it so all the NSA needed was “reasonable suspicion that one of the parties was outside the country at the time” of collection of records.

The act also made it possible to give Internet companies complete immunity from lawsuits when participating or cooperating with government surveillance programs. And, according to the Post, it gave the government the authority to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to force a reluctant company “to comply” and participate in surveillance if the company’s participation was deemed to be necessary.

Details on top secret NSA surveillance programs collecting communications come just after The Guardian and Greenwald published a copy of one of the broadest orders for surveillance ever issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It was for “telephony metadata from all Verizon customers betweeen April 25 and July 19.

NSA whistleblower William Binney believes from experience ”280 million US citizens” are in NSA databases and “each in there several hundred to several thousand times.” There is no legitimate law enforcement purpose for collecting and storing all this data through PRISM or BLARNEY or any other Stasi-like state surveillance programs.

In an interview with POLITICO, author James Bamford said, “There are 300 million people in the U.S. — what is [the tracking] supposed to do? It’s just insane. A sane person would not request access to everybody’s communications in the United States.”

He also rebutted the national security state propaganda that this collection of communications stops terrorist attacks:

The problem with that logic is, if you keep missing all these things they’ve missed – They missed the first World Trade Center bombing, the [attack on the destroyer USS] Cole, the East Africa embassies. They missed 9/11. They missed the underwear bomber. They missed [the] Times Square [bombing attempt]. They missed the Boston bombers — if you have a problem with not finding these people, then maybe instead of building the haystack bigger, you should think about hiring more people good at finding needles in haystacks.

But leaders in Congress, who are in charge of oversight of these programs, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Rep. Mike Rogers, are all okay with this kind of surveillance. They view it to be entirely within the law and contend it helps fight terrorism. And, Feinstein has called for an investigation into whomever is leaking information.

It is unknown whether the source of this information is the same person, but, if it is, it is reasonable to presume based on the quote in the Post‘s article that this individual is doing this because he believes what the US government is doing is illegitimate, unlawful or plain wrong.

The source for Greenwald’s Verizon story seems to have told him he was providing the top secret court order to “educate the public about what is going on.”

The Obama administration does not want the public to know much of anything about the surveillance state. Congress is either sycophantic worshippers of the national security state or afraid to cross agencies behind secret surveillance programs.

The judicial branch of government, which should be helping citizens legally force the government to release information on the authority national security agencies are claiming to engage in warrantless surveillance, has abdicated its duty—like Congress—and is consistently deferring to the executive branch.

That makes whomever is sharing this information profoundly courageous and heroic person, someone who, if and when the source is identified, should be praised for putting his livelihood at risk and taking a stand against the “hoarding complex” the government has developed.


American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer reacts, “The stories published over the last two days make clear that the NSA – part of the military – now has direct access to every corner of Americans’ digital lives…Unchecked government surveillance presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms. These revelations are a reminder that Congress has given the executive branch far too much power to invade individual privacy, that existing civil liberties safeguards are grossly inadequate, and that powers exercised entirely in secret, without public accountability of any kind, will certainly be abused.”

The ACLU’s Washington Legislative Director, Laura Murphy, states, “The secrecy surrounding the government’s extraordinary surveillance powers has stymied our system of checks and balances,” and urges Congress to investigate and enact reforms.

This story by Tim B. Lee for the Washington Post highlights how the Protect America Act pushed by President George W. Bush helped to legalize this kind of collection of electronic communications.

Update 2 

The source of information on PRISM and the top secret court order for Verizon call data is one source. A New York Times profile on Greenwald indicates it is a “reader” of Greenwald’s. He “knew the views that I had and had an expectation of how I would display them.”